Recently, I’ve been talking with some fellow professionals about imposter syndrome. This is where you never feel like you’re quite good enough, but work on faking it till you’re making it. It’s when you assume a certain role yet never quite feel qualified, and wonder when other people will figure it out.
The more I talk about it with others, the more I realize that we all experience this phenomenon.
Other people look at me, and think that because I can put “PhD” after my name, I must really know a lot of stuff.
Well, I am pretty smart, but I was smart before I earned the degree, and plenty of people who don’t have those letters after their names are pretty smart as well.
The degree alone is not an indication of intelligence, or success, or the ability to own a room, or, let’s be real, an indication of ability to obtain gainful employment. The job market is tough out there, especially for people with “PhD” after their name.
So, what is it, then?
I really think the degree is a “to each, her own,” kind of situation.
For me, I have learned that those letters after my name are an indication of my stubbornness, my personal drive, and my simple yet profound inability to tolerate bullshit.
There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells about having a conversation with a polite, older gentleman at a party. The gentleman gestures to the others in the room – people who are accomplished at Doing Great Things – and says that he doesn’t belong there. After all, he explains, he just went where he was told.
Well, says Neil Gaiman in response, you were the first man to walk on the moon. That has to count for something.
That’s right; even Neil Armstrong has moments of experiencing imposter syndrome, despite his incredible achievements in aviation.
Much like Neil Armstrong, I feel the need to reduce my accomplishments to simply following a checklist. To earn a doctorate in Literature, do these things. Enroll in classes, check. Earn high grades in these classes, check. Take and pass qualifying oral and written exams, check. And so forth.
Because I simply followed the checklist, I often feel I need to apologize for the degree sometimes, or to hide it, as if to say, “I know this doesn’t make me better than anyone else. And I’m just as self-confident without it. Please don’t think I’m a jerk.”
Much like Neil Armstrong, I simply followed the path I was pointed down and checked things off my list. And yet, I realize now that one of the singular benefits I earned from working on this degree is that I was willing to raise hell when I was prevented from accomplishing some of the things on said list.
One of those things involved earning X credits of coursework in order to qualify for graduation. I moved through my program, earning said credits (check). I asked for, and received, approval to take several classes at the college where I earned my master’s degree (check). After successful completion of these classes, I had official transcripts sent to my doctoral program advisor (check), who confirmed receipt.
Then, he retired and left the university. Years passed. I had completed all other items on the checklist and was ready to graduate.
Then, with mere hours to go before close of business on the last possible day that I could have all materials submitted to the graduate school to qualify for graduation, I received an email saying they had never received my transcript for the classes I took years before. I had an email from the previous graduate coordinator confirming receipt of them, but no one cared. The mistake was on the part of the university, yet I was going to suffer the consequences.
I…did not handle it well. This came after many other obstacles that were so unacceptable I still cannot believe this was my experience.
I ended up on the phone with my sister, clock ticking, trying to figure out what to do.
My panic lasted about twelve seconds before my resolve kicked in. There was no way I was letting this happen. I was not going down without a fight.
My sister called a courier while I called the registrar of my former school. I explained the situation, and the registrar graciously agreed to expedite an official copy of my transcript, bless her beating, beautiful heart.
The courier picked up the transcript, and I met him at my university. We walked into the graduate office together, with less than an hour to spare before close of business.
Everyone froze. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but in hindsight I see that they must have all thought I was serving the dean with legal papers.
Instead, I simply wanted the dean’s signature to acknowledge receipt of the transcript in time for me to graduate that term. There had already been several other delays for reasons outside my control, and another six-month delay to graduation based on an error on the part of the university was not something I was willing to accept.
An office staffer tried to get the courier to let him sign for it. I refused to allow it. I insisted that the dean step out of his office to sign for it himself.
More silence. They tried again to get me to acquiesce; I stood my ground.
Finally, the dean came out. He signed the paper on the clipboard, and the currier went away. He reviewed the transcript and said that it was sufficient, though expressed surprise that I had gone to such lengths to get it to him.
And, in the end, it turned out that I had one class too many and didn’t need to go through all of this, but the people reviewing my file were inept and incompetent. There were a lot of instances of incompetence and poor process management along my way toward completing that checklist. But after all of the work I had put in dealing with this nonsense, I was determined to finish what I started.
Maybe I’m not such an imposter after all.